Health

Myth that antibiotics cure coughs and colds still rife

  • 18 November 2011
  • From the section Health
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Antibiotics
Image caption Antibiotics "will not cure viruses"

A quarter of people wrongly believe antibiotics work on most coughs and colds, a Health Protection Agency survey has found.

However antibiotics cannot treat viruses, which cause most respiratory tract infections.

The HPA poll of 1,800 people in England also found one in 10 people keep leftover antibiotics - and many would self-medicate next time they got ill.

A leading GP said antibiotics were not a "cure all".

An expert in immunity and infection is also warning that the misuse of antibiotics, and drug companies' failures to develop new ones, could lead to a rise in untreatable infections.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that antimicrobial resistance "is one of the most serious public health challenges that we face in the EU" and could cost at least 1.5bn euros.

Speaking on European Antibiotics Awareness Day, the HPA's Dr Cliodna McNulty said self-medicating was unsafe and could fuel drug resistance.

Dr McNulty, head of primary care for the HPA, said: "The majority of people can treat themselves at home using over-the-counter medicines to relieve symptoms."

Of those polled, 500 had been prescribed antibiotics in the previous year, with 11% reporting they had leftovers and 6% saying they might take them if they had future infections.

Dr McNulty said that while the numbers might appear small, they could translate into large numbers given that 30% of people take antibiotics every year.

She said: "There is evidence that the more antibiotics you have, the more likely you are to develop resistance. And you're also more likely to develop antibiotic-related diarrhoea."

But 70% were aware of the problem of antibiotic resistance in hospitals, and a similar number were aware that they or their family could be affected.

'Not a cure-all'

The HPA says health professionals must learn to resist demands from patients for treatments they know have little or no effect on coughs and colds. It found 97% of those questioned said that the last time they had asked their GP or nurse for an antibiotic, they were prescribed one.

Dr McNulty added: "Despite many years of public health campaigns advising people that antibiotics don't work against coughs, colds and flu, our research results show that these myths prevail.

"We understand people feel very unwell with coughs, sore throats, flu and colds, but for the majority of people these symptoms are unpleasant but short-lived."

The Department of Health issued fresh guidance on antibiotic prescribing in hospitals on Friday, with doctors and nurses being urged to "think twice" before offering them to patients.

Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: "Antibiotics are a wonderful thing when used properly, but they are not a cure-all for every condition, and should not be seen, or used, as such.

"The opposite is often true and, when used excessively or inappropriately, they can actually do more harm than good - reducing a patient's immunity to illnesses, or building up an immunity to antibiotics, both of which can have negative consequences for good health."

Writing in The Lancet Infectious Diseases medical journal, Prof Laura Piddock of the school of immunity and infection at the University of Birmingham warned there were global implications from the misuse of antibiotics, and drug companies' failures to develop new ones.

She warned: "The demise of antibacterial drug discovery brings the spectre of untreatable infections."

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimated, in 2009, that each year 25,000 Europeans die as a direct consequence of a multidrug-resistant infection.

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